Two new photography exhibitions opened in the past two weeks and both are composed of photographs from South Africa, but in very different ways.
The smaller of the two shows, “Distance and Desire: Encounters with theAfrican Archive,” is on display at the Walther Collectionin Chelsea. This show juxtaposes the works of two photographers, Santu Mofokeng and A.M. Duggan-Cronin. Duggan-Cronin’s The Bantu Tribes of South Africa was published from 1928–1954 and is known for ethnographically preserving a vision of African-American heritage. Contrasting these works are Mofokeng’s commissioned portraits of South Africans, made in 1997. His works tell stories about subjects and challenge the stereotypical ideologies sometimes associated with photographic representations of Africans. Both bodies of photographs were made for the sake of preservation and strategically composed with centered subjects and balanced frames.
The second, and much larger, show is at the International Center of Photography and features nearly 500 photographs interspersed with films, magazines and newspapers. The show is a photojournalistic chronicle of the apartheid in South Africa, aptly titled “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life.” The photographs on display were made by a wide range of photographers, many of whom are unidentifiable. The images are rough, sometimes blurry, and not always compositionally sound. However, they are photos to convey stories of history, not to preserve a representation of a family or tribe.